Colombo: In an unusual move, the Sri Lankan Army on Saturday vowed to uphold the Constitution and not to interfere with the ongoing anti-government protests across the island nation against the unprecedented economic crisis that has led to acute food shortages, soaring prices and power cuts.
Referring to the social media speculation that the embattled Gotabaya Rajapaksa government may use the military to launch a crackdown on the protest near the presidential secretariat, the Sri Lankan Army said it would not resort to violence to quell the anti-government demonstrations which entered the eighth day on Saturday.
The statement made it clear that the Army will intervene only if the police ”call us to assist them.” ”Troops, as everyone witnessed in the past few days, have not at all interfered with any of those peaceful protesters or organizations, nor have they acted against the interests of the State as disciplined members of an organization which brought peace to this country through immense and invaluable sacrifices,” according to the statement.
The Army also dismissed as ”completely false, fabricated and baseless” the speculation, especially in social media, that it was currently undergoing training to assault the protesters.
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The statement urged the public not to be ”provoked or misled by those planned machinations and treacherous gestures as the Army is assuredly committed to safeguard the State and its people round the clock in conformity with the provisions in the Constitution.”
”The Army very strongly and categorically deny those sinister moves and flatly reject those attempts, meant to bring disrepute to this organization and simultaneously urge the civic-conscious and right-minded citizens of this country to place the full confidence in the troops as it has been done in the past because current serving troops remain more trained, professionally-qualified and well-suited to take on any security challenge, in this scenario, only if the Police call us to assist them,” the statement said.
Sri Lanka is currently in the grip of the worst economic crisis since it got independence from the United Kingdom in 1948. Sri Lanka’s foreign currency reserves have virtually run dry. It means that the country cannot afford to pay for imports of staple foods and fuel, leading to acute shortages and very high prices.
The Army’s unusual statement came after former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka commented that the troops must not obey illegal orders inferring a crackdown on the protesters.
Stressing that the Army must rethink ”before acting on unlawful orders”, Fonseka, in an address to Army Commander Gen Shavendra Silva and Kamal Gunaratne, a top bureaucrat of the Defence Ministry, had said the troops must not obey any illegal order.
Fonseka, who was promoted to the rank of field marshal for commanding the Army to victory over the LTTE in 2009, had both Silva and Gunaratne serving under him.
The anti-government protesters are demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as well as of the entire Rajapaksa family in the wake of the poor handling of the ongoing economic crisis that has brought the nation to a financial standstill.
The Colombo Stock Exchange will remain temporarily closed for a week from Monday to provide investors an opportunity to have ”more clarity and understanding” of the current economic conditions in crisis-hit Sri Lanka that would help them ”to make informed investment decisions,” it was announced on Saturday.
”The stock market will remain temporarily closed for a period of five business days from April 18, 2022,” the Securities and Exchange Commission of Sri Lanka (SEC) said in a statement.
Meanwhile, President Rajapaksa held several rounds of discussions on Saturday with top officials on current issues, the President’s Media Division said.
Minister of Finance Ali Sabry, Governor of the Central Bank Nandalal Weerasinghe, State Minister Shehan Semasinghe, Secretary to the President Gamini Senarath, Chief Adviser to the President Lalith Weeratunga, and Secretary to the Ministry of Finance KMM Siriwardena, participated in the first discussion.
Another discussion was held with officials of the Ministries of Finance, Energy, and Health, it said.
Sri Lanka’s central bank has announced it will have to stop making payments on its huge foreign debt burden because it is so short of foreign currency.
The government is now desperate for a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
With the acute shortage of forex, an Indian credit line of USD 500 million for fuel imports has provided a lifeline to the island nation.
India recently announced to extend a USD 1 billion line of credit to Sri Lanka as part of its financial assistance to the country to deal with the economic crisis following a previous USD 500 billion line of credit in February to help it purchase petroleum products.
President Rajapaksa has defended his government’s actions, saying the foreign exchange crisis was not his making and the economic downturn was largely pandemic driven, with the island nation’s tourism revenue and inward remittances waning.
Meanwhile, the collective of unions and mass organizations has decided to observe April 20 as a national day of protest and to mobilize the working masses who will continue to strike in their workplace.
President of the Federation of Health Professionals, Ravi Kumudesh on behalf of the Collective of Trade Unions and Mass Organisations said all trade unions in Sri Lanka are working together with the collective.